Labour Party's Jeremy Corbyn looks to cash in on EU's rejection of UK prime minister Theresa May's Brexit plans

Liverpool: Britain's Labour Party kicked off its annual conference on Sunday, hoping to prove it was ready to unseat the embattled Conservative government despite its own splits on Brexit and rows over anti-Semitism.

Leader Jeremy Corbyn has a golden opportunity to capitalise on Prime Minister Theresa May's weakness after European Union leaders rejected her Brexit plans on Thursday. But he must first ensure that his party's internal tensions take a back seat to bolster his image as a prime-minister-in-waiting.

"The sheer levels of animosity that exists between Corbyn and his opponents is quite remarkable," Anand Menon, political professor at King's College London, said ahead of the four-day event in Liverpool.

 Labour Partys Jeremy Corbyn looks to cash in on EUs rejection of UK prime minister Theresa Mays Brexit plans

File image of Jeremy Corbyn. Reuters

Brexit is one of the fault lines, dividing even normal allies.

Most of Corbyn's MPs and his younger supporters are in favour of the EU, but many voters in the party's working-class heartlands back Brexit.

Corbyn has so far tried to avoid the divisive subject, instead sticking to promoting a domestic social agenda that helped him upset the odds at last year's general election and strip May of her parliamentary majority.

But with Brexit negotiations rapidly heading nowhere as the 29 March deadline looms, party members look set to force a debate and a vote on the conference floor pushing for a second referendum.

Corbyn said on Sunday he would "adhere" to whatever came out of conference, although he would prefer to hold a general election instead. "This government doesn't look very strong," he told the BBC. "We could well be looking towards a general election and you know what? We are ready for it." Pro-EU supporters are due to hold a large march as the conference opens on Sunday, calling for a second vote.

The Labour Party leader will likely stick to his tried-and-tested method when he delivers his keynote speech on Wednesday, according to experts, prioritising efforts to bring down the government rather than trying to stop Brexit.

Corbyn said on Sunday he voted to "remain and reform the EU" in the 2016 referendum on Britain's EU membership.

Another potential issue hampering Corbyn's designs on power is the anti-Semitism row that has dogged the party since he took over in 2015.

He recently admitted the party had a "real problem" with the issue, leading veteran MP Frank Field to quit last month. Field said the leadership was becoming "a force for anti-Semitism in British politics".

The National Executive Committee (NEC), the party's ruling body, agreed this month to adopt in full an international definition of anti-Semitism for its code of conduct, but only after fierce opposition from those in the party who believe it will limit criticism of Israel.

"I will die fighting racism in any form," Corbyn said when asked directly by the BBC whether he was an anti-Semite.

When pressed on his views on Israel, Corbyn added: "It's right that people should be able to discuss the establishment of the state of Israel but recognise the existence of the state of Israel, and not prevent that type of debate."

Labour's polling numbers have remained relatively stable throughout the scandal, although the chaos in the Tory party could mask any impact it has had, said Steven Fielding, professor at University of Nottingham. But the row continues to reverberate through the party.

"There is a lot of resentment, a lot of bitterness which I don't think will be very easily dispelled and there may be some Labour MPs who eventually leave on the basis of anti-Semitism issues," Fielding said.

A group of Labour campaigners will hold a rally on Sunday to protest Corbyn's handling of the scandal. "If they want this conference to work they are going to have to deal with anti-Semitism, rather than pretending that they have dealt with it already," said Menon.

The scandal has deepened the divisions between Corbyn's far-left supporters and the more centrist faction of MPs who held power in the party after Tony Blair took charge in 1994.

These centrist MPs now find themselves on the sidelines and battling for their political lives in the face of aggressive attempts by Corbyn's supporters to de-select them, another issue that could raise tensions during conference.

"The leadership might try and persuade Momentum activists not to make it (de-selection) a central plank of conference but the language is getting very, very abrasive," noted Menon.

Updated Date: Sep 23, 2018 18:35:46 IST